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February 2010 Updates

Pentagon Looks to Breed Immortal 'Synthetic Organisms'

By Katie Drummond
February 5, 2010

Molecular Kill-Switch Included

The Pentagon's mad science arm may have come up with its most radical project yet. Darpa is looking to re-write the laws of evolution to the military's advantage, creating "synthetic organisms" that can live forever - or can be killed with the flick of a molecular switch.

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating "the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement." The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to "produce the intended biological effect." Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can "ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely."

Of course, Darpa's got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work - so they'll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create "tamper proof" cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, "similar to a serial number on a handgun." And if that doesn't work, don't worry. In case Darpa's plan somehow goes horribly awry, they're also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch:

Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism "self-destruct" option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism.

The project comes as Darpa also plans to throw $20 million into a new synthetic biology program, and $7.5 million into "increasing by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes."

Of course, Darpa's up against some vexing, fundamental laws of nature - not to mention bioethics - as they embark on the lab beast program. First, they might want to rethink the idea of evolution as a random series of events, says NYU biology professor David Fitch. "Evolution by selection is nota random process at all, and is actually a hugely efficient design algorithm used extensively in computation and engineering," he e-mails Danger Room.

Even if Darpa manages to overcome the inherent intelligence of evolutionary processes, overcoming inevitable death can be tricky. Just ask all the other research teams who've made stabs at it, trying everything from cell starvation to hormone treatments. Gene therapy, where artificial genes are inserted into an organism to boost cell life, are the latest and greatest in life-extension science, but they've only been proven to extend lifespan by 20 percent in rats.

But suppose gene therapy makes major strides, and Darpa does manage to get the evolutionary science right. They'll also have a major ethical hurdle to jump. Synthetic biology researchers are already facing the same questions, as a 2009 summary from the Synthetic Biology Project reports:

The concern that humans might be overreaching when we create organisms that never before existed can be a safety concern, but it also returns us to disagreements about what is our proper role in the natural world (a debate largely about non-physical harms or harms to well-being).

Even expert molecular geneticists don't know what to make of the project. Either that, or they're scared Darpa might sic a bio-bot on them. "I would love to comment, but unfortunately Darpa has installed a kill switch in me," one unnamed expert tells Danger Room.


India Halts Release of GM Aubergine

Associated Press, Mumbai
February 9, 2010

Environment minister imposes six-month moratorium on launch to allow for further research

The Indian minister for the environment today imposed a six-month moratorium on the launch of a genetically modified variety of aubergine, known locally as brinjal, saying that further scientific research was needed before permission could be given for its commercial cultivation.

Jairam Ramesh said he had taken note of "tremendous opposition" from state governments within India, broad public resistance and the lack of a scientific consensus. "This would be the first GM vegetable crop anywhere in the world so I have been very sensitive and I have arrived at this decision which is responsible to science and responsible to society," he said tonight.

The decision was welcomed by campaigners. "It is an excellent precedent," said the Environment Support Group. "No minister before has ever subjected such an important decision to such public and scientific review."

Opponents had argued that the mass cultivation of the new variety - known as Bt Brinjal after the initials of the bacterium inserted into the plant to boost its resistance to insects - would damage the 2,000 or more existing types of aubergine grown in India. Many also raised concerns about potential human health hazards.

The involvement of the American multinational Monsanto - which part-owns the Indian company that developed the new strain - also stoked the argument over the potential costs and benefits of the new aubergine, with an alliance of left and rightwing politicians arguing that Indian sovereignty was under threat. Activists today hailed the decision as a "victory over American imperialism".

The Indian government found itself in a delicate position after a government panel last year supported the introduction of Bt Brinjal, even though most of the major states in which the 8m-tonne annual aubergine crop in India is grown had said that they would not permit it. The six-month delay for further research is a useful way for Ramesh, a rising reformist minister who played a crucial role in brokering a political accord at the Copenhagen conference on global warming, to sidestep a difficult political battle and to avoid a public row with other ministers who support the launch of Bt Brinjal.

Lobbyists for GM foods were disappointed. "It is unfortunate that India's 1.4 million farmers will not yet be able to enjoy the benefits of biotech brinjal," said Denise Dewar of Croplife, the global industry association for plant biotechnology, which includes Monsanto among its members. "As a staple crop, biotech brinjal could also benefit millions of Indian consumers, who would have improved product quality and greater choice in the marketplace."

India allowed the use of genetically modified seeds for cotton in 2002 after trials found it needed 70% less pesticide and gave 87% more crop than traditional plants. It is now grown in 39% of India's cotton area.


Ex-chief of Monsanto Talks Against Bt Brinjal

By Dinesh C. Sharma
India Today
February 9, 2010

NEW DELHI - The debate on genetically modified (GM) brinjal variety continues to generate heat. Former managing director of Monsanto India, Tiruvadi Jagadisan, is the latest to join the critics of Bt brinjal, perhaps the first industry insider to do so.

Jagadisan, who worked with Monsanto for nearly two decades, including eight years as the managing director of India operations, spoke against the new variety during the public consultation held in Bangalore on Saturday.

On Monday, he elaborated by saying the company "used to fake scientific data" submitted to government regulatory agencies to get commercial approvals for its products in India.

The former Monsanto boss said government regulatory agencies with which the company used to deal with in the 1980s simply depended on data supplied by the company while giving approvals to herbicides.

"The Central Insecticide Board was supposed to give these approvals based on the location and crop-specific data from India. But it simply accepted foreign data supplied by Monsanto. They did not even have a test tube to validate the data and, at times, the data itself was faked," Jagadisan said.

"I retired from the company as I felt the management of Monsanto, USA, was exploiting our country," Jagadisan, 84, said from his home in Bangalore.

"At that time, Monsanto was getting into the seed business and I had information that a 'terminator gene' was to be incorporated in the seeds being supplied by the firm. This meant that the farmer had to buy fresh seeds from Monsanto at heavy cost every time he planted the crop," he said.

Jagadisan said the parent company also retracted from the assurance given to then minister for chemicals and fertilisers, Vasant Sathe, on setting up a manufacturing unit in collaboration with Hindustan Insecticides for the herbicide butachlor.

"The negotiations went on for over a year and in the meantime, Monsanto imported and sold large quantities of the product and made huge profits," he said.

Asked to comment on Jagadisan's allegations, a Monsanto spokesperson said: "We have full faith in the Indian regulatory system, which has its checks and measures in place to ensure accuracy and authenticity of data furnished to them." On approval of GM crops, the spokesperson said the regulatory process was stringent and "no biotech crops are allowed in the market until they undergo extensive and rigid crop safety assessments, following strict scientific protocols".


GM Wheat Rejected by 233 Consumer, Farmer Groups in 26 Countries

CNW Group
February 9, 2010

OTTAWA, MONTREAL, WASHINGTON, TOKYO and SYDNEY - 233 consumer and farmer groups in 26 countries have joined the "Definitive Global Rejection of GM Wheat" statement to stop the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) wheat and remind the biotechnology corporation Monsanto that genetically modifying this major crop is not acceptable to farmers or consumers. (1)

The 233 groups signed the rejection statement first launched by 15 Australian, Canadian and U.S. farmer and consumer groups in June 2009.

"Canadian farmers have just lost their export sales to Europe and other markets because of GM flax contamination from a GM variety deregistered a decade ago and never even sold. Our current experience with GM flax contamination clearly illustrates the crippling losses Canadian farmers will suffer if GM wheat is introduced," said Terry Boehm, a flax and wheat farmer and President of the National Farmers Union in Canada. "Flax is yet another warning that once a GM crop is introduced, contamination is inevitable."

In July 2009, Monsanto announced new research into GM wheat and industry groups kicked their promotion of GM wheat into high gear. "Widespread farmer and consumer resistance defeated GM wheat in 2004 and this global rejection remains strong, as demonstrated by today's statement," said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

"In 2004, a coalition of Japanese consumer and food industry groups delivered a petition to the Governments of Canada and the U.S. urging them not to introduce GM wheat. Today, consumer rejection of GM wheat in Japan is just as strong as ever. 80 organizations in Japan have already signed the rejection statement," said Keisuke Amagasa of the Tokyo-based No! GMO Campaign. "A large majority of consumers here in Japan are voicing their strong opposition to the cultivation of GM wheat. We see strong opposition from all sectors of society."

Japan's flour companies are also rejecting GM wheat, echoing consumer opposition. In a statement released today, the Flour Miller's Association of Japan wrote to the No! GMO Campaign indicating its opposition.

"Under the present circumstances, with all the doubts about safety and the environment that the consumers in Japan have, including the effect on the human body from GM foods, GM wheat is included among the items that are not acceptable for the Japanese market," Kadota Masaaki, senior managing director of the Flour Miller's Association wrote to the No! GMO Campaign.

In the U.S., a recent report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a network of seven community farmer, rancher and consumer organizations, shows that U.S. wheat prices could fall by 40 percent or more if industry efforts to develop GM wheat succeed. (2)

"U.S. family farmers will do everything to protect our wheat from Monsanto and we do not accept that any corporation has the right to patents on life, including seeds," said Dena Hoff from the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S. "GM wheat would contaminate our crops and food supply, and put an end to organic grain production. Farmers in the U.S. have already rejected GM wheat and Monsanto is sorely mistaken if they think farmers will ever accept GM wheat."

"The big push is on from Monsanto to pave the way for GM wheat but the reality is that strong and widespread opposition from farmers and consumers in Australia and across the world is here to stay," said Laura Kelly from Greenpeace Australia Pacific.


Cotton Lessons for Bt Brinjal

The Telegraph, India
February 15, 2010

New Delhi - Crop scientist Keshav Kranthi would hate being labelled campaigner against genetic engineering. He says he supports plant biotechnology and wants India to pursue the myriad promises it offers.

But in the polarised debate on the genetically modified (GM) brinjal, Kranthi has aligned himself with groups calling for caution before its release, citing little-known but serious trouble with cotton rarely articulated before.

Kranthi, acting director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur, has warned that poor management of the technology has spawned an abundance of predictable and unexpected problems. The rapid adoption of GM cotton by farmers across the country has coincided with the rise of hitherto unknown insect pests, increased pesticide applications by farmers, and declining cotton productivity over the past three years, he has told the government.

Indian regulators approved GM cotton engineered with a bacterial gene to resist an insect - based on technology similar to that in GM brinjal - in 2002. Kranthi asserts there are no scientifically-authenticated safety issues over GM cotton from anywhere.

Farmers have adopted the GM cotton, which now makes up 90 per cent of the crop in some areas, and virtually eliminated its target pest - bollworms. India's annual cotton output has jumped from 3 billion kg to 5.3 billion kg over the past decade.

But new insects, including one called a mealybug, not known as cotton pests, have spread, causing significant economic losses, Kranthi said in a report sent to the ministry of environment and forests with his comments on GM brinjal.

"Cotton is a tricky crop - we should have been more careful," Kranthi said. "There are lessons to be learnt from this experience for future genetically modified crops, brinjal or anything else," he told The Telegraph.

The environment ministry last week imposed a moratorium on the release of GM brinjal that will remain in place until independent studies are able to establish its safety and there is scientific consensus that it can be released.

Many crop and biotechnology industry scientists have pitched yield and economic gains from GM cotton to farmers as striking examples of the fruits of biotechnology, arguing that GM brinjal would deliver similar benefits.

But a mealybug named Phenacoccus solenopsis, not observed earlier in India, has spread across northern, central and western states after it was first recognised as a cotton pest about five years ago, Kranthi said. In desperation, farmers have begun to spray "extremely hazardous" pesticides on the cotton to fight the insect, which has a waxy coating over its surface that makes it hard to kill with less toxic pesticides, he said.

The reduced use of pesticides on GM cotton and the proliferation of GM cotton hybrids that are susceptible to these insects may have contributed to the emergence of these pests, according to Kranthi's report. "The inappropriate choice of hybrids and the arbitrary and prolific spread of GM cotton hybrids have created conditions congenial for the rapid multiplication of these new insects."

Kranthi sees himself as an insider, a biotechnology believer, urging caution. "Someone has to point this out," said Kranthi, a 47-year-old entomologist who had articulated similar concerns five years ago in the journal Current Science from the Indian Academy of Sciences.

But other scientists disagree with him. "He's wrong on this. New insect pests always overtake old ones. This could be part of a natural cycle that has nothing to do with GM cotton," said Thirkannad Manjunath, a senior entomologist who has worked with both government and private crop science institutions.

Another scientist who heads a private biotechnology company said the emergence of new pests was not surprising. "The significantly reduced use of pesticide sprays would have allowed these (non-bollworm) insects to multiply," said K.K. Narayanan, who is also a member of the Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises. "We've always maintained that genetic modification (of plants) is only part of a package of crop management practices."

But Kranthi says 90 per cent of the current GM cotton hybrids appear susceptible to mealybugs and whiteflies. Insecticide use in cotton appears to have increased from Rs 640 crore in 2006 to Rs 800 crore in 2008, his report said.

The report also points out that seed companies have produced over 600 GM cotton hybrids, and farmers in cotton-growing districts find themselves having to choose from 150 to 200 hybrids. Yet India's cotton productivity has declined over the past three years - from 560kg lint per hectare in 2007 to 520kg lint in 2008 to 512 kg lint in 2009. A wrong choice of hybrids, Kranthi said, may be contributing to this drop. "A wise choice of GM cotton hybrids which are tailored for geographical regions after taking into account their susceptibility to other pests may have led to much better outcomes."

Some scientists point out that mandatory state and district-level technical committees for crop genetic engineering that could have guided the appropriate choice of hybrids are missing in many states. "The hybrids used depend on farmers, seed suppliers and university extension centres," said C. Kameswara Rao, director of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore. "This has nothing to do with GM cotton or approvals," he said.


More US Weeds Found Resisting Monsanto Roundup

By Carey Gillam
February 26, 2010

KANSAS CITY - Scientists said Friday they have confirmed expanding weed resistance to a key ingredient in Monsanto'swidely used Roundup herbicide, a troubling development for farmers and fresh fodder for Monsanto critics.

Kansas State University said scientists had found five kochia weed populations in western Kansas that have been confirmed to have become resistant to glyphosate.

Kochia, also called fireweed, is a drought-tolerant weed commonly found on land in the western United States and Canada where crops are grown and cattle are grazed.

"This complicates and may increase control costs for those growers who may have a resistance problem, but there are other herbicides," said Kansas State weed scientist Phil Stahlman.

Stahlman and other university researchers are recommending farmers use other herbicides to try to control the weeds.

Monsanto said it was working with university scientists on a multi-state effort to keep evaluating the problem and advise farmers how to respond.

The company declined to answer questions about how significant the resistance problems are to date, and if resistance is expected to expand further.

Weed resistance to glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, has been mounting across the United States in recent years as Monsanto's genetically modified "Roundup Ready" corn, soybeans and other crops have gained popularity with farmers.

Monsanto has genetically altered the crops so they can withstand dousings of Roundup herbicide. But environmentalists and other critics claim herbicide usage has increased, making weeds more resistant, which ultimately makes it more difficult to kill weeds and leads farmers to boost use of other types of herbicide as well.

It is common for weeds to develop resistance to herbicides. So far, more than 130 types of weeds have developed levels of herbicide resistance in more than 40 U.S. states, more resistant weeds than found in any other country, according to weed scientists.

Experts estimate glyphosate-resistant weeds have infested close to 11 million acres.

"All being driven by Roundup Ready crop systems," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.

Freese said the U.S. government needs to do a better job of regulating herbicide-tolerant crops and herbicide usage.

"We've been telling USDA for several years now that they have to regulate the herbicide-tolerant crop systems that are driving the evolution and spread of these noxious weeds," Freese said.

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